Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Let the Outline Flow

By Lenny Kraft
Lenny Kraft

Outlines: some writers hate them, some writers love them.

I learned early on that I belong to the second group: before I start writing, I want to know what's ahead. If you are reading this article, chances are that you at least think an outline might be useful in your work. Perhaps you have already discovered which style of outline suits you best, or perhaps you are still trying to figure out how to discover your kind of outline. If that is the case, you are where I was for a long time. I experimented with a number of different approaches, such as the line-per-scene outline, the action-and-motivation-per-scene outline, and the phase outline ( None of them felt really comfortable, and eventually I figured out why: all of these methods forced me to break down the story into pieces that felt too small. I don't think in scenes or in phases. For me, the smallest unit of the story is longer, more along the lines of a chapter. And once I'd realized this, I soon worked out my own approach to outlining, the one that finally feels natural.

For the sake of ease and having a nifty name, I am going to call it the flow outline. The flow outline might help you if you often get stuck deciding where one scene ends and the next begins. It could also guide you into putting just the right amount of detail into your outline -- not so much as to bloat it, but still enough to easily visualize the action. Finally, and this might surprise you as it did me, it's fun. Outlining is not just a chore for me anymore, but a part of the creation process that I actually enjoy.

If you have decided to give the flow outline a try, here is what to do.

Imagine you're talking about your story to an interested listener.

That's basically it. Just talk about it and retell what happens. Not in the same detail as in the actual manuscript, but enough so that your listener understands what's going on. Here is an example from the story that I'm currently working on:

Chapter 13: Braron POV. They arrive in one of the front-line cities. As all these cities are built the same way, Braron, with Enariel in tow, quickly finds the house of the commander. He asks to be let in and after waiting for a moment they enter. The commander is sitting at a map table and looking rather condescending. Braron explains that he is here to catch an ork, and the commander counters that the king has never given an order like that before. Braron gets angry, but before he can give a fierce reply, Enariel cuts in. He and the commander greet each other like old friends and Braron understands that the commander was trained by Enariel. He also learns that they haven't had an attack in two weeks and are expecting the next one any day. Braron feels slighted because they don't pay attention to him, and so he interrupts and asks where they can stay. The commander tells him to ask the quartermaster. So they go to the quartermaster, who assigns them a room for two. Braron gets angry again, because as a noble he deserves a single room, but Enariel sharply reminds him not to quarrel in front of the common soldiers. Embarrassed, Braron accepts the arrangement, but vows that he will get back at the elf for that. They go to their room and unpack their gear...

It's not much of a narrative, but somehow it flows, doesn't it? You can leave out everything that isn't vital. I don't have to describe the setting here, or cite the dialogue. I just want to get across the gist of the conversation. However -- and this is where the imaginary listener comes in again -- you may want to make sure that you have all the really good bits covered. After all, the listener shouldn't miss out on the little gems in your story, should she? A stunning turn of phrase. A special dress someone might wear. A real zinger in the dialogue. Everything that you want to put in, but might forget between the outline and the first draft.

While you're talking about your story, you can insert breaks whenever they feel natural. For me, it's usually shifts in time, place, or point of view. They might be actual scene breaks, but I don't think about that. I treat a break in the flow outline as a chapter break, and it's working well for me.

I have so far outlined two novels in this way, and each time the result was a clean and intuitively appealing structure that translated easily into the first draft.

I hope that this article will entice you into giving the flow outline a try the next time you feel stuck. Or maybe it will even help you discover your very own approach to outline writing.

Let it flow!